The root of our contemporary adjective “happy” lies in the late 14c. noun hap, meaning “chance or fortune.”

So, to be “happy” is to be blessed by chance; “happy” is closely related to “lucky.” When things work out, I feel lucky; I am happy with the way my circumstances have unfolded.

Happiness can refer to a range of feelings from simple contentment and peace with life as it is, to an enthusiastic experience of intense joy. For the most part, we use “happy” to refer to the quieter end of the scale. We say, “I am happy with things as they are”, meaning I am content. We say, “I am happy to do what  you like”, meaning I am willing to comply with your wishes. We say, “She seems to be a happy child”, meaning she seems to be generally well-adapted.

As a person who is not generally noted for my wildly ebullient personality, these quieter senses of happiness appeal to me. They seem somehow a little more attainable than the leaping and dancing kind of energy we sometimes associate with “happiness.”

The problem with the more energetic version of happiness is that it is most tightly bound to “hap;” it is linked to the good fortune occasionally allows me to find the circumstances of my life pleasing. I am happy when things go the way I like them; I am unhappy when things are not going as I wish. I am happy when I get my way, unhappy when my ability to fulfill my needs, wants and desires is frustrated.

Happy/unhappy is a rollercoaster driven by likes and dislikes. I am happy when I get what I like, unhappy when life deals me a situation I find distasteful. I ride up and down on the endless rise and fall of my feelings about how things are going.

When I live on the happy/unhappy teeter totter I have given away my inner state to fickle fate. There is no stability, equanimity or peace when “happy” is tied to circumstance.

The rollercoaster of circumstantial happiness is a form of slavery. There is no freedom in constantly rising and falling with how things are going in the external world.

The goal of the spiritual life is to find a place within myself where my chain is not constantly yanked by whatever is going on out there.

Louise Welch points the way to true happiness with two important questions and a suggestion:

do I live by anything other than like or dislike? What makes my so-called decisions for me? I must examine my dislikes and likes and see how much I am at their mercy. (Meetings With Louise Welch, 92)

I only begin to approach freedom when I can loosen the bonds of circumstance over my life.

Despite its etymology, true happiness is not a matter of circumstance; it is a matter of inner choice. To the degree that I am able to move beyond the hold of likes and dislikes, I open myself to happiness that transcends many of the difficult, uncomfortable and even profoundly painful circumstances of my life. While acknowledging that there are at times situations in life that are simply intolerable, for most of us, most of the time, it is possible to respond to the realities of our lives from a place of strength and stability that knows all is well.

There is an inner state that has the capacity to outlast the inevitable instability of my life situation. Paul called it a peace that “surpasses all understanding” and believed it had the power to “guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) This is way better than the good luck of things occasionally falling into place.